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Choice for Chief Judge Bell’s seat now in governor’s hands

The Appellate Judicial Nominating Commission on Thursday sent Gov. Martin O’Malley the names of all five candidates who have applied for the seat on Maryland’s highest court that Chief Judge Robert M. Bell will leave vacant when he hits the mandatory retirement age of 70 on July 6.

Chief Judge Robert M. Bell

The five are intermediate Court of Special Appeals judges Stuart R. Berger, Albert J. Matricciani Jr. and Shirley M. Watts; Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge W. Michel Pierson; and attorney M. Natalie McSherry, a partner at Kramon & Graham PA in Baltimore.

Though O’Malley’s may select a candidate from the commission’s list, the governor can disregard the slate, which he might do if he has any specific Baltimorean in mind for the Court of Appeals.

“It’s ultimately the governor’s decision and he does not have to take those names,” said Takirra Winfield, a spokeswoman for the governor.

O’Malley will begin interviewing candidates for Bell’s seat during the week of July 1, but no date has been set for an announcement of the pick, Winfield said.

Under the state constitution, Bell’s replacement on the bench — not necessarily as chief judge — must go to a Baltimore resident, as he holds the city’s judicial-district seat on the Court of Appeals.

Bell’s pending departure, in addition to creating a vacancy on the seven-member court, will enable O’Malley to appoint the next chief.

If his choice for the Baltimore seat is not also his pick for the court’s top slot, O’Malley will have to choose the chief from among the court’s current judges: Mary Ellen Barbera, Clayton Greene Jr., Glenn T. Harrell Jr., Lynne A. Battaglia, Sally D. Adkins or Robert N. McDonald.

The five Baltimore candidates had submitted their names for the nominating commission’s consideration by the May 1 deadline. The 17-member panel reviewed the applicants during the past seven weeks and, having found each qualified to be the next Court of Appeals judge, sent their names to the governor.

Berger, 54, has served on the Court of Special Appeals since Jan. 25, 2012. The 1984 University of Baltimore School of Law graduate was a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge from 1998 to 2012 after working in private practice.

Matricciani, 66, has been on the Court of Special Appeals since Sept. 2, 2008. The 1973 University of Maryland School of Law graduate, like Berger, served on the Baltimore City Circuit Court, from 1995 to 2008, following a career in private practice.

Watts, in her early 50s, has served on the Court of Special Appeals since Jan. 27, 2011. The 1983 Rutgers University School of Law graduate was a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge from 2002 to 2011 after serving as an assistant Baltimore state’s attorney and later as an assistant federal public defender.

Pierson, 63, has been a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge since Jan. 14, 2004. The 1973 University of Maryland School of Law graduate was in private practice before joining the bench.

McSherry, 63, is a career attorney in private practice and a board member of the Maryland Legal Services Corp. She graduated from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1974.

The appointment of Watts or McSherry would make history, as women would for the first time constitute the majority of the Court of Appeals’ seven active judges.